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Non-Review Review: The Zero Theorem

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2014.

The Zero Theorem is a mess. Of course, this isn’t a surprise. Part of the charm of Terry Gilliam is the way that the director seems to wallow in chaos and disorder – dysfunction and mess are two of his calling cards as a director. However, The Zero Theorem often feels more like a scrapbook of half-composed ideas than a finished film, packed with some interesting ideas and wonderful visuals, blended to a story and script that lack any real subtlety or nuance or insight.

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The movie follows Qohen Leth, an “entity cruncher” at the omni-corporation ManCom. This is really the baseline that The Zero Theorem operates from, naming its obligatory evil monopoly as a portmanteau of “man” and “company” to illustrate how the corporations are invading individual autonomy. Similarly, the company’s evil corporate overlord is simply named “Management”, and his poster presents him as some sort of fascist overlord overseeing his corporate drones.

The problem with The Zero Theorem is that it doesn’t trust the cast to convey or the audience to pick up on any of the staggeringly obvious themes at play here. For example, when “Management” is asked why he picked Qohen for this most high-profile of assignment, the overlord explains that it is because Qohen is “a man of faith.” This would seem like a compelling insight, except that the film opens with Qohen living in an abandoned church, waiting patiently for “the call” from some anonymous higher power that will give his life purpose.

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Subtle, The Zero Theorem is not. And the film suffers, because there’s a sense that Gilliam is hammering his points so hard that he has forgotten to build characters inhabiting this world or to structure an effective plot around them. There’s a sense that The Zero Theorem is Gilliam’s condemnation of modern society – when Qohen goes outside, his sense are assaulted by noise and news and restrictions on what he can and can’t do; people at parties seem to do nothing but film themselves; everything is too loud, the internet is nothing but porn.

However, this feels less like the biting satire of Brazil and more like an old man angrily shaking his fist at the world, telling those kids outside to get the hell off his lawn and keep it down. Ironically enough, this constant noisy flood of information is one of the more endearing aspects of The Zero Theorem. News reports flood in over “duMBC” and “BaBiC” while advertisements for “the Church of Batman the Redeemer” broadcast and “Occupy Wall Street” is repurposed as a marketing gimmick like Ché Guevara already has been. It is overwhelming and blunt, but it feels a lot more focused than anything else in The Zero Theorem.

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Even Qohen’s new assignment feels like a particularly blunt metaphor. He works on computers, but he doesn’t crunch numbers; he crunches entities. (“Much more difficult,” he explains.) The portrayal of “ManCom” as an ominous cruncher of entities feels like the least subtle critique of corporate culture ever. Assigned to the eponymous mathematical proof, Qohen is assigned to prove that “zero must equal one hundred percent.” In short, that nothing is equal to everything and, thus, everything is equal to nothing.

Complaining about his assignment to his supervisor, Qohen laments, “Nothing adds up to anything.” His boss corrects him, “That’s where you’ve got it wrong, Quinn. Everything adds up to nothing.” It’s not a bad jumping off point for an existential black comedy, but the problem is that The Zero Theorem never moves past this point. Instead, we get ninety minutes of characters trying to explain the joke in increasingly frustrating ways. The nihilism inherent in the idea is apparent, so we don’t need characters drawing diagrams or providing sinister monologues about this.

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To be fair, The Zero Theorem looks absolutely wonderful. This bleak futuristic dystopia looks distinctly Gilliam-esque, with some eye-catching visual design. As much as this other world might look horrifying or dehumanising, there’s a macabre beauty to all that smoke and all those clashing colours. Gilliam has always been a director with a unique vision, and The Zero Theorem demonstrates he still has a unique way of imaging the world around him.

Some of the movie’s best moments are gags powered by the surreality of it all. The movie’s most memorable image is Christoph Waltz dressed in a gigantic red condom ready to engage in cyber sex, although Tilda Swinton as a Scottish computer psychiatrist willing to use rap therapy to reach her patients is something that will stick with viewers for quite some time after the film has finished. Unfortunately, The Zero Theorem seems to lack the energy to maintain this pace of bizarre imagery, and there are long passages where nothing seems to happen except characters discussing what we already know.

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The cast are pretty game for anything that Gilliam throws at them, with Waltz making it through the production with his dignity intact. Tilda Swinton makes a delightfully surreal cameo as “ROM Shrink”, a computer programme psychiatrist who – for some strange reason – is Scottish. David Thewlis scores well as the corporate toady Joby, Qohen’s direct supervisor who can never be bothered to remember his charge’s name. There’s something by turns pathetic and unsettling about Joby.

The problem is that none of these characters feel particularly compelling. For all the good work that Joby does, he really just feels like a second-generation knock-off of Michael Palin’s cheery fascist from Brazil. In fact, there are points in The Zero Theorem where it feels like Gilliam was struggling to sew all his ideas together, and he just patched over bits of Brazil. Joby is the most obvious example, but the film’s ending and the final scene with its lead female character also owe a conscious debt to Brazil. Needless to say, inviting comparisons to Brazil really does not do the film any favours.

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The Zero Theorem is a massive disappoint. Despite all the potential on display, it doesn’t add up to very much.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 2

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you. I did love Brazil.

  2. So it is like all Terry Gilliam’s films then?

    • Ha!

      I think “typically Gilliam-esque” is perhaps the most even-handed description of the film. Although I have a huge fondness for Gilliam’s eighties and early nineties work, particularly Brazil, The Fisher King and Time Bandits, which I do think are distinct from a lot of his other work – while containing root elements.

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